BOISE • For the troubled Idaho Education Network broadband project, some good budget news could be on the horizon.
The state may get a price break on the high school broadband system through June 2016, as a result of decreased equipment costs.
The network’s Program Resource Advisory Council voted Friday to trim back budget requests for the rest of the 2014-15 budget year, and for the 2015-16 budget year beginning July 1.
The committee says the state will need to spend about $2.19 million to maintain the system from March 1 through June 30. In August, the committee it would take $2.4 million to cover this four-month period.
The committee says the state will need to spend $2.74 million of general fund money on the network in 2015-16, a decrease from its original $2.95 million estimate.
In 2015-16, the state would also be able to get by on fewer “e-rate” dollars — federally administered money collected on cell phone and landline bills. This line item is expected to come in at $6.72 million, down from the original forecast of $7.22 million.
Of course, a lot of uncertainty still surrounds these e-rate dollars. A Federal Communications Commission contractor has kept Idaho’s e-rate payments on hold since March 2013, as the Idaho Education Network’s 2009 contract remains embroiled in a lawsuit. It is unclear when the lawsuit might be settled — and regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, it’s unclear when or if the federal payments will resume.
The disputed contract was a topic in Thursday night’s final gubernatorial debate, with Republican incumbent Butch Otter defending the deal and Democratic challenger A.J. Balukoff saying the state should rewrite it.
With the contract tied up in the courts, and e-rate dollars in limbo, the 2014 Legislature shelled out $6.6 million to pick up the balance the books on the project for 2013-14, and another $4.8 million to cover costs from July 2014 through Feb. 28. Friday’s news does not affect that $11.4 million bill.
Broadband costs are going down, because more schools are switching from copper wire to fiber optics. When that happens, they are able to install more powerful and cheaper ethernet equipment, said Greg Zickau of the state Department of Adminstration, the agency that oversees the Idaho Education Network.
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